Moral Responsibility

The photo above shows animal activists in Queensland, Australia, wearing black shirts that read:

One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

This is an extract from Martin Luther King’s, Letter from Birmingham Jail.

It was written in 1963 after he was arrested for leading a protest in Birmingham, Alabama.

While activists are proud to display the words as evidence of their moral credentials, they’ve payed little regard to the rest of the letter.

Civil Disobedience and Direct Action

The activists have a hunger for direct action, promoted by their peers.

Direct action, as its name implies, is a means of trying to achieve ends directly, without seeking to come to an agreement with authorities.

But what’s the direct action the activists are trying to achieve?

According to Vegan Rising, who helped arrange the Day of Action on 8 April, it was:

to raise awareness of the plight of animals used for food, clothing, animal testing and entertainment.

However this isn’t direct action, but indirect action.

Given the activists ultimately want animal liberation, the aim of “raising awareness” is an indirect way of attaining it.

That is, seeing or hearing about the Day of Action doesn’t achieve animal liberation directly.

“Raising awareness” is part of any step towards a goal, but it’s not direct action, which aims to realize an immediate, specific goal.

Further, “raising awareness” can be achieved by information campaigns, without any need for illegal activity.

Rescuing animals would be direct action, since activists achieve a direct goal related to their aims.

However Gary Francione points out that illegal actions aren’t necessary in this case, either, since they could be achieved by means such as giving homes to unwanted animals.

Even the activists concede that animal liberation, providing it’s achieved, is likely decades away.

So, other than actions such as rescuing animals, how could the activist’s actions be characterized if they aren’t direct action?

Civil disobedience.

While demonstrations can be legal or illegal, protestors don’t have the intention of being arrested.

Civil disobedience, on the other hand, defies laws openly, with either the object of being arrested or awareness that it may result.

Its purpose is to highlight a cause, and win support for it.


While the April Day of Action wasn’t direct action, the activists nevertheless regarded it as such (saying it would be “biggest animal rights direct action the world has ever seen.”).

In the Letter, Martin describes four steps leading to the direct action he took part in:

collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.

The activists completed the first step, then jumped to the fourth, eager to move forward without delay.

They skipped the second step, negotiation, probably realising they had no hope of success.

They also omitted, or sped through, the third step, purification, perhaps believing that questioning their philosophy, goals, and attitudes towards the people they targeted was unnecessary.

Why waste time on a seemingly nebulous idea like purification, when you can jump straight into ‘direct action’?

Why? Because most people in the country don’t support the views of the activists, and weren’t swayed by their actions.

Had the activists devoted the same amount of time, energy and organization into public information campaigns, they could’ve got much better results with far less antagonism.

The time is always ripe

Martin tells his readers that:

the time is always ripe to do right.

The goal of the activists has been to do what they believe is right in a way that will gain the most attention.

They’ve certainly done a good job in this regard.

They’re well organized and committed to their actions.

But they don’t seem to have considered whether these actions are the most effective means of advancing their cause.

Swept up in part by the social experience, they haven’t stopped to consider the damage.

They’ve alienated farmers, a segment of the wider population, politicians, and serious threats have flowed both ways on social media.

This is not the method Martin Luther King followed.

Bitterness and hatred

In the Letter, Martin explains that he was caught in the middle of two opposing forces: one being “do-nothingism,” the other “bitterness and hatred” towards whites, veering towards violence.

Yet he presented a third way he regarded as superior, a:

way of love and nonviolent protest.

While the protestors actions haven’t been violent, they haven’t made an effort to demonstrate love.

Both their behaviour on social media and at least some actions, have been skewed towards the bitterness and hatred Martin rejected.

Making the names and addresses of farmers and their families available to anyone interested, also doesn’t shine with love.

The abuse and swearing is the charged language of the born-again vegan: someone who’s become vegan, defiantly renouncing their former ways.

Vegans are by no means all born-again, just as Christians aren’t all born-again.

But some have an inner fire, fanned by the enthusiasm of the group, to make their righteousness known.

Purity of means

Martin tells us that:

Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. 

But the protestors—like the organizations they’re part of and that support them—don’t have a purity of means.

The means they use may not require violence, but often show contempt for their foes, and typically employ force.

But doesn’t force mean violence? Not necessarily.

Force is coercion or compulsion, and while it often uses violence, it isn’t required.

In terms of the Day of Action, it meant:

  • finding ways around a blocked intersection, possibly making people late to work and appointments
  • taking alternate transport, because trains and trams in the vicinity had been halted
  • ambulances had to take different routes
  • police were required to arrest activists and clear them from the area.

Democracy of philosophy

The activists also don’t hold any consistent philosophy about animal use.

Some are members of a group called Animal Liberation, named after Peter Singer’s book of the same name, which, when it came out, advocated improving animal use, but not necessarily eliminating it.

Whatever Peter’s changing views, he’s a utilitarian, which doesn’t regard practices as wrong or right on principle, but on the basis of the number of people who favour it.

In that sense, it’s a kind of democracy of philosophy, which defers its value judgements to the majority.

In line with this idea of philosophy by popularity, Animal Liberation in Queensland, for example, advocated vegetarianism on their website until at least 2015.

But as veganism became more popular, they updated their site sometime after that to advocate veganism exclusively.

They tell readers that the definition of veganism they give was the “original” created in the 1940s—when it didn’t appear until 1979.

What kind of depth do they have when they can’t even give an accurate date for a definition central to their cause?

In the past, you could be a prominent figure in the group and not even be vegetarian.

Many of the activists put aside their vehement insistence that animal use is wrong to advocate for improved or ‘kinder’ animal use.

This ignores the law of noncontradiction: you can’t say something is wrong—in this case animal use—and then advocate to improve it. It’s either wrong or it’s not.

These are only a few examples of the conflicting views that undermine the weight of their message.

The social consensus, the dramatic statement, is more important than the consistency of their thinking.

As the founder and President of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, put it in 2010:

Screw the principle.

Thankfully, civil engineers don’t take this advice to heart when they design bridges.

A principle is a foundation of reality, the basis on which other views rest: by ‘screwing’ it you attempt to bend reality to make it conform to your wishes.